Think women can’t do pullups? Think again.
Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller is reviewing a fitness plan for pullups that some say obliterates the myth that women are too frail to pull their chin over the bar.
Col. Robin Gallant, 55, was unable to do a single pullup without help from a rubber band before she embraced the approach.
“I got my first pullup on April 27 of 2014 – it’s like giving birth: You don’t forget that,” Gallant told Marine Corps Times on Friday. “I kicked it on my last [Physical Fitness Test], I got 15; and now I’m up to an ugly 17, a pretty solid 16.”
With the right diet, weight training, doing CrossFit and practicing pullups, Gallant said she has built a good deal of lean muscle.
“It doesn’t make you look like a man,” she said. “Anybody that says that is full of crap.”
Gallant, the comptroller for the II Marine Expeditionary Force, learned how to do pullups under the tutelage of Maj. Misty Posey, who developed the approach that Neller is taking a look at.
A female Marine mentioned Posey's plan to Neller during a Friday town hall with the commandant. Neller told her that if she sent him the plan, he'd distribute it Corps-wide.
The technique Posey has refined over years is having people do pullups between three and five times a day for at least three days a week, Posey said. The key to success is not maxing out each set, she said.
Figuring it out
When Posey wrote her paper “Starting from Zero: The Secret to Pull-up Success,” she particularly wanted to reach female Marines who don’t know how to train for the exercise.
“I didn’t want them to make the same training mistakes I did and give up before they learn pullups and think it was their gender that prevented them from learning a pullup when I know full well that [gender] has very little to do with learning pullups,” Posey told Marine Corps Times on Friday.
For Posey, learning how to do pullups was a necessity, she said. As a midshipman trying to make it through the University of San Diego's Reserve Officer Training Corps program, her instructors made her run through the obstacle course at Marine Recruit Depot San Diego.
Standing only 4 feet, 10 inches high, Posey said she was at a distinct disadvantage compared to the other midshipmen.
“As you can imagine, the obstacles are all very tall because no women train at MCRD San Diego, so there were no ramps; there were no steps,” said Posey, who now works in Manpower and Reserve Affairs said. “My PT instructor ... basically said, ‘You need to figure it out.’”
Posey needed to build upper-body strength so she could hoist herself over the obstacles, but no matter how much exercise she did in the gym, she was still unable to do a single pullup, she said. Then, a gunnery sergeant who worked at the gym saw her struggling and gave her some advice that changed everything.
“He said, ‘Get out of my gym; get on a pullup bar,’” Posey recalled. “He said: “If you don’t have a partner to help spot you when you need it … pull up as far as you can. If you can only pull up half way, keep doing that. Eventually, you’ll be able pull up higher. He was right.”
After five days of doing jumping pullups, body weight negatives, partner-assisted pullups and partial range of motion pullups, Posey was able to do her first proper pullup, she said.
The ladder approach
Posey was excited to share what she had learned, but when she told people that anyone can do a pullup, they laughed at her, she said.
“I would be told, ‘You’re the exception,” Posey said. “So if I’m the exception, what’s the rule? The rule that people were thinking was that physical weakness is a woman’s natural and irreversible condition and any woman who is physically strong is an exception to that rule.”
Later, a male colleague challenged her to do 20 pullups, so she consulted a kinesiology major, she said. He told her that the trick to training for pullups is to stop exercising before hitting muscle failure.
“So the approach a lot of Marines take is every other day they’ll do a couple max sets of pullups,” Posey said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but ... they tend to plateau and they’ll stay there indefinitely unless they do something different.
“I do pullups almost every day … several times a day," she said. "I get up on the bar and I’ll do a few sets and I will always stop well short of failure. So my max set is about 25 but when I do pullups I’ll do a little ladder: I’ll do one, come off the bar, wait 10 seconds; then do two, come off the bar, wait 10 seconds; I’ll work up to five or six and them I go back to one.”
Posey will do two or three ladders within a five-minute period several times throughout the day, she said. Each ladder is about one-third of the maximum number of pullups she can do.
“The way you get good at pullups is to do a lot of pullups – you don’t have to tear your muscles down, make them sore and make them bigger to get pullups,” she said. “You just have to train the motor patterns. Your central nervous system needs that constant repetition.”
Capt. Kimberly Sonntag, the Marine who told Neller about the plan Friday, said she has used the techniques in Posey’s paper to go from zero to four pullups in a month.
“Like most people, the way I was training was wrong,” said Sonntag, who works in Plans, Policies and Operations. “I thought: Well I can’t do a pullup, so I should use a band or I should use the Gravitron [exercise machine]. So it did force me to get off those things that were not working.”
Sonntag also has hyper-mobile joints, and that has made it very hard for her to get into the right position to pull herself up, she said. Posey’s program gave her specific exercises so she could be strong enough to start doing pullups from a dead hang.
Women often train for pullups by isolating muscle groups, such as their biceps, when pullups require them to use all of their muscles at the same time, she said.
“There is a perception — both with men and even with women — that women can’t do pullups,” Sonntag said. “This just shows that with the proper training, women can do pullups. They can pull their own body weight.”